Lately, it seems as if barely a week goes by without an elder in the family or community passing on. Last month it was Uncle Johnny, last week it was Mr. Jackson, this week, Uncle Buddy. Our elders, especially the 80 and 90 somethings have really been bidding us adieu, like the carbonation bubbles that sit at the bottom of my glass and then suddenly release themselves , float to the top, and dissipate ,so these elders seem to be flying away at a rapid clip! With advances in medicine and improvement in overall quality of living , maybe there’s just more elders making it to 80 and beyond, and then dying. On the other hand, perhaps this feeling of “lots more people dying” is just a naturally occurring phenomena for all of us as we ourselves age, as we continue on our own slow march toward death. I feel a tremendous loss when these elders pass on, but perhaps some are just weary from life’s sojourn and ready to rest or “go home”.
Here’s what I really struggle with since becoming a family researcher. When elders in my family or community transition, pass, go home, die , my thoughts immediately go into overdrive with this questioning:
“Did we capture their stories/family history?”and “Did we get the DNA sample?”
I often wonder if others in the genealogy community struggle with this feeling of “Genealogy and/or DNA opportunity lost”?
Lately I have been feeling the need to “check” myself on this matter! So my self check begins with the following line of questioning and reasoning.
Is it not enough for some of us that this person lived a life filled to overflowing with work, play, love, support, single, married, children, societal/community contributions? That they fought, mourned, endured set backs and disappointments, battled illness through out their life or toward’s the end, worshiped God, and ran life’s race with endurance and deserved to have a “Well done, thy good and faithful servant” uttered at their funeral service?
There are all sorts of reasons why we do not get the stories or the DNA samples. Maybe they weren’t even able to produce enough spittle to provide an adequate DNA sample! There is also mistrust of the medical establishment especially since many in the African American community have lived through injustices like the Tuskegee experiment and Henrietta Lacks. There’s the fear among many that the establishment will do something clandestine/subversive with their DNA sample even though they may routinely provide blood work that is labeled with their name and other identifiers (and should be) for the medical establishment. Perhaps there were family memories or secrets too precious or painful to share. Maybe dementia , Alzheimer, or time has claimed those memories. Yet for some of us, even momentarily, all of this is not enough! There is this overwhelming sense of urgency to claim this information before we can’t! Would it be asking too much to add these to do’s to the funeral pre-needs checklist? Ok, maybe I’m over reaching here, but you get my point!
A Malian (West Africa) proverb says “An old man death is like a library that burns to the ground”. Well, the genetic genealogist in me takes it into overdrive – when an elder dies, without having been DNA tested, it’s not only the library that burns, but lost perhaps forever is the ability to reach further back in time and identify those ancestors that have been lost to us due to DNA recombination and/or a lack of family research. I struggle with the constant since of urgency to DNA test the elders and talk to them about their lives, even when they are not related to me. I cannot help but mourn the opportunity being laid to rest when there are no stories or DNA tested. The opportunity to make exciting DNA discoveries that reveal the following and more.
Unanticipated ancestors, ethnicity, and relatives
Family mysteries resolved
Family secrets revealed
Evidence supporting or refuting family research
Rumors put to rest
Now mind you there is sometimes disappointment in all of this discovery. The truth is not always so pretty. But I would like to think that there are very few individuals who have absolutely regretted taking an ancestry DNA test. Maybe we could just add a couple of check boxes to the bucket list , one for voluntary genealogy sharing other for voluntary DNA testing just to give loved ones something to consider.
The point is , when I started heading down the path of mourning over “Opportunity Lost” , I remind myself that “it is what it is”, and that this person has already given us enough in living their life. Relax , let go of the preoccupation with research, and be present in the celebration of their lives , mourning of their absence, and the comforting and encouragement of loved ones- what a wonderful opportunity re-discovered!
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